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Pirates Starting Pitching Depth Chart Discussions

The Pittsburgh Pirates squeezed about as much value out of A.J. Burnett, James McDonald, Kevin Correia, and Jeff Karstens as possible in 2012, yet their team ERA- was still worse than league average. Correia is out, and Francisco Liriano is in, and now of course they get Wandy Rodriguez for a full season. So things look kinda alright for Pirates fans. But from a fantasy perspective, there are a couple opportunities, a couple landmines, and maybe a position battle still to be watched.

A.J. Burnett is the ostensible leader of this crew after his impressive re-emergence as a good fantasy option after the debacle in New York. His strikeout rate crept back up over 21%, the first time in three years, and his walk rate was just about the best it has been in his career at a fairly stingy 7.3%. In standard 5×5 leagues, Burnett was really quite valuable – he had a decent ERA (3.51), he won games (16), and he had a respectable WHIP (1.24).

Checking off all the typical boxes, it’s hard to say he can’t do it again. His BABIP was .294 vs. a career .290 rate, he didn’t have an abnormally low HR/FB rate (it was in fact higher than his career average), his strand rate was a teensy bit high at 74.1%, but it’s not anything close to a red flag. The move to the National League produced an expected uptick in strikeouts, but whether you really drill down or take a birds eye view, Burnett was just simply good again. He did just turn 36, however, and what we know about starting pitcher aging curves suggests that’s getting a little long in the tooth, but his velocity was down just .4 mph from 2011 (but yeah, significantly down from his 95 mph days). In my mind, you draft Burnett as your #4 and do some praying.

Behind him is Wandy Rodriguez, who pitched exactly how you would expect Wandy Rodriguez to pitch upon his arrival in Pittsburgh by way of Houston. He struck out very few, had solid control, and had just two real stinkers out of 12 games started. Rodriguez ought to give you an ERA shy of 4, a WHIP shy of 1.30, and if he can give you 180 innings it’s possible he strikes out as many as 140. He really shouldn’t cost much and he could be one of those sneaky-useful older (34) pitchers that fly under the radar on draft day.

Did you know that James McDonald had a 4.21 ERA in 2011? Did you know that he had a 4.21 ERA, 4.21 FIP, and 4.21 xFIP in 2012? Of course you did, because it’s freaky. Also freaky are his splits:

ERA FIP WHIP AVG OBP SLG K%
1st Half 2.37 3.00 0.97 0.194 0.258 0.312 23.50%
2nd Half 7.52 6.37 1.79 0.286 0.388 0.551 17.70%

Yeeks. His velocity was off a touch as the season wore on, his second half splits were absolutely atrocious, and beyond June, his control just fell apart. He’s still just 28 so it’s possible he’s got a more consistent year in him, but given his volatility, it’s probably best to just go with, oh I don’t know — a 4.21 ERA? If he could log 180 innings, there’s potential for 160 strikeouts, but for my money, it’s probably best to let him be someone else’s problem.

Francisco Liriano and Jeff Karstens are likely to round out the rotation, although it’s possible that Liriano won’t be quite ready for opening day which opens the door for the likes of Jonathan Sanchez, Jeff Locke, or Kyle McPherson. In Liriano, the Pirates have a real wild card, no pun intended. 2012 was an all around head scratcher as Liriano’s fastball returned, his strikeouts spiked, yet he was just as ineffective as ever. His success is almost entirely wrapped up in his ability to find the strike zone — something he has rarely done for significant stretches of the season. PNC might be a better place for him to pitch as far as home runs are concerned since the park tends to suppress HR’s to righties and almost all of the longballs he gave up were to RHB in 2012. I’ve always found it hard to forget how dazzling he was in 2006, but outside of 2010, he’s mostly been disappointing to fantasy managers.

Karstens won’t do much for your strikeouts, but he’s managed a sub-4.00 ERA for two straight seasons and his stinginess relative to walks keeps his WHIP in check, even if he isn’t fooling too many hitters. He’s certainly not the kind of pitcher to build around, but he’s nice to have on your bench for occasional spot starts or if injury strikes. He was frequently dinged up in 2012 with shoulder, hip, and groin issues. At 30 years of age, don’t be terribly surprised if he finds the trainers table again.

If you’re in a league-specific format or have particularly deep rosters, you might keep an eye on Jonathan Sanchez, who could fill in for Liriano in early March. In Sanchez, you’d have sort of a worse version of Liriano. He’s typically posted terrific strikeout numbers, he’s rarely in control of his pitches, and his results are often underwhelming. His 2012 was a total loss and he’s now just looking for a job. It’s not out of the question he makes the squad as a LOOGY in an Oliver Perez kind of reclamation project.

Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson both made a handful of starts for the Pirates, with Locke winning the only game of their combined nine starts. McPherson just turned 25 and owns a 3.45 ERA, 1.078 WHIP, and a 7.6 K/9 rate in almost 600 minor league innings. In 2012, he threw a combined 67 innings between AA and AAA, making 12 starts and posting a 3.33 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and an 8.5 K/9. Locke is also 25 but has seven minor league seasons under his belt already amassing almost 800 innings. In 2012, he threw 141 innings at AAA posting a 2.48 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, with an 8.3 K/9 rate. Both profile as back of the rotation kind of guys with decent strikeout stuff, but until a rotation slot opens up, they’re likely to continue seasoning in AAA or wind up in the bullpen. Both are likely in the rotation in 2014, however, so dynasty leaguers may want to take note.

Charlie Morton and Jeanmar Gomez might see time as starters sometime in 2013, but if they do, the wheels have come off for the Pirates.

Early Starting Pitching Depth Chart (Steamer Projections):

Name W L ERA IP H ER HR SO BB WHIP K/9 BB/9 FIP WAR
A.J. Burnett 12 10 3.90 186 179 81 14 148 69 1.33 7.16 3.34 3.68 3.2
Wandy Rodriguez 11 10 4.27 179 184 85 17 119 59 1.35 5.97 2.95 4.02 2.4
James McDonald 10 9 4.28 158 153 75 19 128 65 1.38 7.28 3.69 4.28 1.6
Francisco Liriano 9 7 3.89 133 120 57 10 122 59 1.35 8.29 4 3.66 2.3
Jeff Karstens 6 6 4.19 106 112 49 12 65 24 1.28 5.54 2.04 4.05 1.1
Kyle McPherson 4 4 4.16 68 70 32 7 47 20 1.3 6.26 2.58 4.04 0.9
Jeff Locke 3 3 3.99 50 48 22 5 40 18 1.33 7.19 3.26 3.96 0.4